April 29, 2012
Fourth Sunday of Easter
In our largely urban society we tend to glamorize sheep herding. In fact, and especially in Jesus' day, it was a lonely, harsh and dangerous occupation. Jesus was not using hyperbole, therefore, when he says that the good shepherd must be ready to lay down his life for the sheep. It is only the bad shepherd, for whom the sheep are of merely utilitarian value, who flees because he is unwilling to risk his own life when they are attacked.
Jesus is not really talking about sheep herding, of course. He is speaking instead about the intimate, personal bond that must exist between him and his followers. He offers his life for them, and they respond in total trust, so that they know and love Jesus in the same deeply personal way that Jesus knows and loves his heavenly Father.
We live in a world that seems to prize personal freedom above everything else. The problem with that is that one person's use of freedom may easily infringe upon the rights of someone else. In such cases, one must recognize that, in a society of many individuals, personal freedom cannot be absolute. When Frank Sinatra sang, "I did it my way," he was making beautiful music but expressing very dubious theology. The ideal is to live life, not in my way, but in the right way.
When Jesus says that he is the good shepherd, he certainly means that he sacrifices his comfort and safety for the sake of others. There is a graphic description of bad shepherds in Ezechiel (34:2-3): "Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep." Such selfish shepherds do not care for their sheep at all but instead mistreat them as they use them for the satisfaction of their own needs.
If we wish to be followers of the good shepherd, we must have that same relationship with God that Jesus did. This means that we must open ourselves to the reality of God's love for us and then do all that we can to make that love a reality in the lives of others. This will often mean that we will place the interests and needs of others before our own wishes and preferences. In other words, we will often "do it their way." This may, at first glance, appear to be a recipe for disappointment and servitude, but such a conclusion will be reached only by those who have never tried it. The good shepherd is also a happy shepherd!
This concern for others will create in us that wonderful sense of "knowing" Jesus and being "known" by him. In other words, we will sense the presence of Jesus in our lives in a way that transcends all the external elements of religion. These elements will remain important but we will understand that they are really meant to lead us to a personal and mystical experience of Jesus in all the circumstances of our lives. When that happens, we will recognize instinctively the voice of our good shepherd and gladly follow him into God's wonderfully mysterious future.
Demetrius R. Dumm, O.S.B.